A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, February 24, 2012

Not Revolution 2.0: Social Media as Lynch Mob in the Kashgari Case

I haven't commented up to now on the case of Hamza Kashgari, the Saudi journalist who had to flee the Kingdom due to his Twitter tweets about the Prophet Muhammad, and who was then seized in Malaysia and extradited back to Saudi Arabia for possible trial, which could even entail the death penalty. The basic issues of freedom of expression seem clear enough, and the case is even more dismaying because of Malaysia's role in delivering him back to KSA after he had made his escape. Certainly Kashgari's tweets were ill-advised for someone living in Saudi Arabia (what parts of "Commission for the P:romotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice" and "Religious Police" did he not understand?), but the potentially draconian punishment is provoking justifiable outrage. Background stories here and here if you haven't been following it.

But there's another side to the whole Kashgari issue that is worth noting amid all the talk over the past year of the Arab uprisings as "social media revolutions," "Revolution 2.0," and so on. In the Kashgari case, it is the social media that have been baying for his scalp.

As this piece in Canada's MacLeans notes,  the Internet has been playing the role of lynch mob in the Kashgari case. YouTube videos call for his death; chat rooms demand it.

Then there is the battle of the Facebook groups. As of this writing, the "The Saudi People Demand Retribution from Hamza Kashgari (Arabic)" Facebook page has 26,711 members.  "Free Hamza Kashgari," on the other hand, has 6,700. Of course there are other pages and other forums, but it seems clear that supporters of the Saudi religious establishment are using social media to demand punishment. Though the page itself does not immediately call for his death, many of the posters do. (In contrast, the Grand Mufti of Egypt has noted, "We don't kill our sons; we talk to them.")

Yes, social media can be a major organizing tool for revolutionary change. It can also be the modern equivalent of the lynch mob.


xoussef said...

I don't think much agitation by the Saudi religious establishment was needed this time. The Saudi society is "conservative" enough, to put it politely, to have many many more crying for blood than supporters for the guy. Saudi problem is not the rulers, they don't care much as long as they retain power and wealth, the problem is that the saudis themselves are happy with the prescriptions of the religious establishment.

David Mack said...

Agree with both the article and the comment. Observers in the West need to take the romance out of their coverage of the Arab cyber-street.